Kelsey Quaisley, Ph.D., Postdoctoral Scholar, Oregon State University
Rachel Funk, Ph.D., Research Scientist, University of Nebraska-Lincoln
Wendy M. Smith, Ph.D., Research Professor, University of Nebraska-Lincoln
Brett Criswell, Ph.D., Associate Professor, West Chester University
Recently, STEM teachers have been afforded more opportunities to grow as leaders, such as through the Noyce Track 3 Master Teaching Fellows (MTF) program. However, as Poekart (2012) noted, the movement from teacher to teacher leader requires a “profound identity shift” (p. 174). Not enough research exists that delves deeply into how this identity shift occurs, particularly the mechanisms underlying it. This blog post explores the development of STEM teacher leaders throughout (and beyond) their participation in Noyce Track 3 MTF projects. We introduce the rock cycle as a metaphor for describing STEM teacher leader identity development and apply it to understand the identity development of two MTFs.
The Rock Cycle as a Metaphor for Teacher Leader Identity Development
In the rock cycle, rocks change through various processes; in our simplified metaphor, we highlight two generic processes as useful in describing teacher leadership development: (1) deposition and cementation and (2) application of heat and pressure. Deposition refers to the gradual accumulation of layers of sediment that are then cemented together to form a rock. By comparison, when rocks are subjected to intensive heat and pressure, they may transform into a fundamentally different rock. Heat and pressure can also cause rocks to fracture, so these forces can have both transformative and destructive effects.
We envision analogous processes occurring during the professional experiences of the MTFs, particularly those associated with their participation in Noyce. All MTFs began with a set of internal drivers, motivators, beliefs, and some level of efficacy as a teacher and leader. Noyce contributed to their leader identity development in two ways:
Deposition and cementation and application of heat and pressure provide protection against the weathering effects of systemic barriers to MTFs’ leadership efforts (e.g., unsupportive administrations, limited resources) that can break down teacher leadership identities over time. These processes also helped strengthen MTFs’ responses to educational challenges like the COVID-19 pandemic. We next present vignettes from two MTFs that describe the impact of Noyce on these processes in more detail.
Case of Mx. Marble – Deposition and Cementation
Although Mx. Marble experienced the processes of deposition, cementation, and transformation of their identity synergistically throughout the Noyce program, Mx. Marble’s leadership identity development was primarily characteristic of a deposition and cementation of knowledge and skills. As such, we emphasize the layers that built up and solidified within Mx. Marble over time and supported them on their path towards metamorphosis.
Mx. Marble entered Noyce with an internal drive to improve and a passionate disposition as a servant-leader. Before Noyce, Mx Marble viewed themselves as an “okay teacher,” but over time and through validating experiences in Noyce, Mx. Marble fully saw themselves as the teacher leader others positioned them to be. Through Noyce, Mx. Marble developed layers of pedagogical expertise and the confidence to share their educational beliefs with others: “Being in Noyce definitely propelled me to think outside of my bubble, and to let me know that the things I’m doing are best practice.” Moreover, having a reliable network of “core people” in Noyce who shared a common philosophy and values inspired Mx. Marble and re-invigorated their own internal sources of heat and pressure to lead, primarily, their drive to present mathematics through a social justice lens. At the same time, expectations from Noyce and the support of Mx. Marble’s colleagues to apply for National Board Professional Teacher Certification provided positive external sources of heat and pressure that solidified Mx. Marble’s confidence and validated Mx. Marble’s knowledge and skills as a teacher leader. Overall, Mx. Marble described being encouraged, molded, inspired, and transformed into a teacher leader through Noyce:
Mx. Marble’s experience was truly that of the building up and strengthening of the layers of their leadership identity. As a result of their stronger teacher leader identity, Mx. Marble was more prepared and supported to withstand harsh weathering conditions at their school in 2020, such as COVID-induced burnout and challenges surrounding enacting lessons in hybrid online/in-person classrooms. Thus, Mx. Marble’s case suggests that Noyce projects may offer a means for equity-driven teacher leaders to see themselves more fully as teacher leaders and sustain their leadership in challenging environments.
Figure 2: Rock Cycle for Mx. Marble
Case of Mx. Slate – Heat, Pressure, and Identity Transformation
Metamorphosis represents a transformation from one thing into another. Teachers can transform into leaders, but it is also true that individuals who already serve as teacher leaders can transform into people better able to function in these positions. Mx. Slate represents an individual compelled by Noyce to undergo a fundamental transformation of herself into being a true teacher leader. We highlight three aspects of that transformation in this vignette.
The first is that through a combination of a master’s program in which the MTFs were enrolled and the lesson study process employed by the Noyce project, Mx. Slate embraced strategies that enabled them to teach in a more equitable manner:
Critical factors underlying this change were (1) exposure to new strategies in the master’s program, (2) the use of lesson study to allow MTFs to design, implement, and reflect on these strategies, and (3) the support of the project leaders and Mx. Slate’s MTF peers that enabled them to “let go” of the control paradigmatic of traditional teaching strategies.
When asked about the biggest impacts from Noyce, Mx. Slate highlighted a difficult internal transformation that was made possible by Noyce:
Mx. Slate described themselves as an introvert, and yet Noyce both challenged and sustained them in pushing past the constraints on their leadership that introversion might otherwise impose. As Boss (2015) noted, introverts bring valuable qualities to leadership, including their strong analytical skills and ability to manage uncertainty. The data show that increased content and pedagogical knowledge, the ability to know “how to say and show people what that difference was” (Year 3 interview) between effective and less effective teaching and being given the opportunity to go to the annual Noyce conference were all catalysts behind this transformation.
The final transformation was the empowerment that the Noyce project provided to Mx. Slate: “I think it’s given me a lot of clout. I think it’s also given me a lot of connections.” This empowerment not only spurred a transformation in Mx. Slate’s teacher leader identity, it also changed Mx. Slate’s stance on their future in the profession:
Figure 3: Rock Cycle for Mx. Slate
The rock cycle metaphor offers a different lens for considering the process of teacher leader development. It generates productive questions to guide work in this area: (1) What are the knowledge and skills (deposition) most impactful in producing change and what are the factors (cementation) that bind them together within projects like Noyce? (2) What determines whether the heat and pressure of projects like Noyce are transformative or destructive? and (3) How might projects like Noyce provide erosion protection for teachers? Here are some answers:
- Properly designed, projects like Noyce can assist teacher leaders in seeing themselves and seeing the system differently (Criswell et al., 2021). This includes expanding their views of what teacher leadership represents, which can support deposition of new leadership strategies and transformation in their spheres of influence.
- Mezirow (1997; 2018) discussed cycles of transformative change, and the Noyce projects provide both the time and experiential structure (e.g., reflection) for teacher leaders to move through those cycles in appropriate ways. Mezirow noted that dissonance is a key mechanism of transformation (providing heat and pressure), but dissonance without reflection can be destructive.
- Being external to school systems, Noyce projects can provide different perspectives that can make the need for change more salient, as well as a space for risk taking and failure mitigation through the networks formed and strong communities of practice.
- Noyce projects have the resources (funding and personnel) to provide “differentiated strategies” (Styles et al., 2017; p. 4) for supporting leadership development, including the most effective forms of heat and pressure to apply to teacher leaders.
- Noyce projects have the capacity to create synergy of change (Butterfoss, n.d.) by working with school districts to create Leadership Development Plans (parallel to student Individual Education Plans) that map out visions of how to push teacher leaders to their maximum capabilities, while supporting challenges.
- Properly integrated, the differentiated strategies, cycles of transformative change, and synergies of change that Noyce projects are positioned to provide can strengthen leadership identities to increase professional satisfaction and support retention.
In looking ahead, we would like to suggest some ideas for future research. Studies on the growth of STEM teacher leaders should consider the knowledge and skills of teacher leaders and how these interact with pressures placed on teacher leaders by external professional development programs like Noyce. A deeper look into the development of STEM teacher leaders’ professional identities as STEM teacher leaders would provide valuable insights for current and future professional development efforts to strengthen STEM teacher leaders’ positive impacts on equitable teaching and learning. Future research should consider other leadership programs and compare those to the impacts of Noyce MTF projects to better tease out the relative influences of various program characteristics in a wider variety of educational ecosystems.
The data for this study come from the Collaborative Research: Teacher Leadership: Investigating the Persistence and Trajectories of Master Teachers (T-Lead) project (DUE-1758462, 1758438, 1758452, 1853560), and draw from interviews conducted in 2018-2021 with nearly 200 MTFs across nine Noyce Track 3 projects. The T-Lead project sought to understand the growth of the MTFs as teacher leaders and how this influenced their professional trajectories, particularly their decisions to stay in or leave the teaching profession. For more information about T-Lead, see Yow et al. (2021).
Thanks to ARISE blog series editor, Marilyn Strutchens for her support of the authors. Watch for Marilyn’s blog highlighting three teacher leaders prepared by the TEAM-Math Teacher Leader Academy at Auburn University.